With new recommendations from the World Health Organization that parents should not allow babies under 2 any screen time — and should seriously limit it for kids under 5 — you’re likely wondering: How bad is it really for babies to watch TV? We spoke with experts to find out their takes.
To start, you probably already knew that TV isn’t considered to be “healthy” for your child’s mind. Especially not compared to, you know, reading books (or being read to). But unless you live a pretty isolated, tech-free life (in which case, good for you!) your kids will likely be exposed to TV at some point. That said, official recommendations on how much is too much seem to constantly vary.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, for one, long recommended parents keep children under the age of 2 away from all screens (yes, that includes smartphones, TVs, tablets and computers) at all times. In 2016, however, they tweaked those guidelines and instead advised that kids under 18 months should avoid all screens — with one exception: live video chats. As for kids who are 18 to 24 months, the organization said a little bit of TV is OK — as long as it’s “high quality programming.” Plus, the real caveat: Parents should watch along with their children so they can talk about the TV programming and help kids understand what they’re seeing, the AAP said in a press release.
The World Health Organization’s 2019 guidelines, however, are more strict: W.H.O. states that screen time in kids under 5 can cause “delays and deficits in learning by the time they enter school,” and urges parents to eliminate screens for kids under age two and keep it to an hour or less for 5-and-unders. Instead, W.H.O. advises replacing screen time with physical activity and the ever-elusive parental wish for their kids: sleep. Easier said than done, right?
So what’s the real verdict on screen time in young kids? Ultimately, it depends on your child’s specific age as well as how you’re using the screen, Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells SheKnows. “The images move very quickly on a screen — a lot more quickly than the brain is used to processing at a young age,” Fisher explains, adding that data suggest children under 2 learn more from stationary objects — such as playing with toys and looking at books. “All of those images are not assaulting their brain in the way that looking at a screen can do,” she says.
But completely banning screens all the time is “unrealistic… screens are everywhere,” Dr. Gene Beresin (director The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School) explains to SheKnows.
That said, it’s really important parents don’t let their young child sit in front of the TV alone. “Unfortunately, screens can be used as babysitters, particularly for toddlers,” says Beresin. “While it may be convenient and give a parent a break, it basically flies in the face of what we know about child development — that parents and children need to have a secure attachment with each other.”
Instead, Beresin recommends parents watch TV with their children and gauge their reactions. Some kids may get overstimulated, aggressive or anxious, and it’s important for parents to be there to know when their child isn’t responding well to what they’re seeing. Parents should also engage with their child when they’re watching TV together, pointing out colors and objects they see. “Making it an engaging, interactive experience is really incredibly valuable, and that’s a positive use of the screen rather than leaving the child in front of the screen,” Beresin says.
It’s also important to make sure your child is watching something appropriate. News can have disturbing images, which is why Fisher recommends parents leave the news off when their young children are around. Time is important as well; Fisher recommends no more than 30 minutes of screen-time. “That’s a decently long period of time for a less-than-2-year-old because their attention span is so short.”
But the experts agree: If you can, it’s really best to keep your young children away from the TV. It’s not a huge deal if they happen to catch a few minutes of what their older sibling is watching here and there, Fisher explains, but ideally, their exposure is limited.
Ultimately, just be aware and do your best — and when you’re with your toddler, screen or no screen, be present. “Try to be conscientious of it and follow TV up with some non-screen-time,” Fisher suggests. Might we suggest some favorite books for reading with toddlers?
A version of this story was originally published in October 2017.